2021 In Review: It's The Final Countdown

on Wednesday, December 29, 2021
One hundred and ninety books and it's come to the pointy end. Here are nine of the ten books I loved most in 2021.

10. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.
Granted I haven't quite finished it, but I've read enough of this exuberant subversion of the high-flying, swashbucking tales of yore to have it sitting comfortably in my top ten. Reminiscent of old favourites like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Let The Great World Spin, it is a boldly joyous book, filled with grand setpieces, big characters and a plot that hurtles along with the aeronautic dynamism of the flying dreams that lie at its heart. It's also a salient reminder that good literary fiction can still be narrative-driven.

9. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
This book could have been a disaster. In fact, when I first heard Ishiguro was trying his hand at an artificial intelligence novel, my first thought was "Hasn't McEwan already punished us enough?" Thankfully, he rose to the occasion, giving us what I think is both his best book since (and a companion piece to) Never Let Me Go. Much like in that book, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death.

8. The Promise by Damon Galgut
Back when I first read Catch 22, I marvelled at Heller's ability to frame the central conundrum in so many different ways. I had much the same feeling reading Galgut's Booker Prize winning novel of racial and social injustice. It didn't hurt that every shit fate that befell a member of the Swarts family has befallen the relative of someone I know. Yep, this book cut close to home. Quite coincidentally, I read it at the same time as I was watching The White Lotus, and couldn't help but feel they were companion pieces; excoriarting commentaries on (mostly white) privilege. Galgut has long sat on the periphery of South African literary royalty, never quite achieving the stature of Coetzee, Brink or Gordimer. The Good Doctor should have changed that, but at least this one now has.

7. Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas
Labyrinthine sentences wind us through an equally intricate story of fatherhood, identity and existence in an incresingly techno-fied world. This is daring literature at its finest: fun, playful, confounding and, at times, infuriating. It's the kind of book sure to send fans of Bernhard and Pessoa into fits of orgasmic bliss. Peppered with hilarious literary in-jokes, it struck me as a fitting successor to Vila-Matas's glorious Montano's Malady. I could read those two in continuous loop and be happy forever.

6. The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
Umptten years in the offing, Jennifer Croft's English translation of Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob was probably the publishing event of 2021. Cited by the Nobel Committee in her citation, it is a massive book in every possible sense of the word. Charting the rise and fall of Jacob Frank,the second most famous false messiah in Jewish history, it is a polyvocal spectacular that draws on history, theology, philosophy and multiple storytelling traditions to explore the essence of language and its interpretation. It is, without question, a modern masterpiece.

5. Chasing Homer by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
It seems redundant to talk about anything by Krasznahorkai as "weird", but as a multimedia experiment, this novella was pretty fucking weird. Set against percussive soundscapes accessed through QR codes, it is a claustrophobic, paranoid foray into something resembling the world of cloak and dagger chase stories. I heard him read something tonally similar in New York a long while back and wonder if that was germ from which this grew. Whatever, it's a pretty good entry point for those wanting to dip their toe in to the great man's work. If only because it is almost accessible. Almost.

4. More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman
At this point, David Grossman can pretty much do nothing wrong. And even when he does (I didn't love A Horse Walks Into a Bar) he still wins awards for it. For me, More Than I Love My Life is a late career highlight. A complex, finely-tuned tale of motherhood, intergenerational trauma, storytelling and, well, love, it hinges on a human conundrum that is equal to, but possibly more relatable than, Sophie's Choice. And it was bloody refreshing to read a modern, deeply Jewish novel where the trauma is not Holocaust-related.

3. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr
One of the first books I read this year, The Prophets set the bar for 2021. The story of Isiah and Samuel, two slaves who fall in love on a plantation, it is beautiful, carnal, raw and bristling with righteous indignation in the face of insurmountable cruelty. In my review back in January I called it equal to the works of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and now, almost twelve months later, I stand by that. As I said, "Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire." This is a book that just might have redefined a genre.

2. Assembly by Natasha Brown
So far as I'm concerned, zeitgeist books, almost by definition, suck. Everyone jumps on board, holding their literary "insider status" as some kind of wanky membership card. Like, seriously. What a farce. And so I came to this with extreme caution and... whoooooooaaaaaaah. Assembly is an exhilarating bomb placed beneath the classist, racist, misogynist, colonial foundations of British society and set off to spectacular effect. It's a revelation. A supernova. Sure, I've just become what I hate but, in this case, it was worth it.


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